A warning sign greeted my three traveling companions and me at the Havana airport on the morning of departure from Cuba. Written in Spanish with English translation, it listed the many items that passengers are prohibited from bringing on flights. Among them were “catapults.”
We laughed as we pictured somebody trying to drag one of those massive Roman weapons loaded with boulders into the airport to check it onto a plane. Or struggling to get it into the overhead compartment. The accompanying picture made clear that the appropriate translation would have been “slingshots.”
I was pondering how challenging it is to overcome differences of culture and language as I settled into my window seat on the packed flight to Cancún, Mexico, when an elderly Cuban man took the seat next to mine. He had the creased face and calloused hands of a farmer who had spent a lifetime in the fields. He told me that he was on his way to visit his family in Florida, whom he hadn’t seen in many years. And he had never been on a plane before.
When the flight attendant brought around the customs forms we needed to fill out, my seatmate borrowed my pen, placed my form next to his, and began copying it, beginning with my name. He had grown up in the years before the revolution, when Cuba was a playground for wealthy North Americans, when vast resources were channeled into luxury hotels and gambling casinos, into nightclubs and golf courses, rather than into education for Cuba’s children. I realized that he didn’t know how to read. With me guiding him through the process, he was able to write his name by copying it, letter by painstaking letter, from his passport.
He didn’t know, or didn’t have, a street address. He was from La Vallita, a rural village I had visited that was colorful with dusty poinsettias and bougainvillea and fences made out of thin, growing cactus. When he was done filling out the form, he smiled triumphantly. I realized, in that snapshot of a moment, we had overcome virtually every obstacle that divides human beings: language, nationality, gender, class, race, age, education.
My traveling companions and I—all members of Circle of Mercy, the congregation I co-pastor in Asheville, North Carolina—spent Martin Luther King Day packing up 50-pound duffel bags with medicine, vitamins, school supplies, linens, and clothes. We were headed to our sister church, Iglesia Getsémani in Camagüey, Cuba.
We’re committed to our sister-church relationship being a mutual spiritual partnership, rather than a connection through charity or even “mission.” But we couldn’t escape the vast difference between our two congregations in our capacities to acquire resources. Although our gesture was illegal—a violation of the economic blockade—we were clear that our relationship would lack integrity if we allowed our sisters and brothers to suffer without basic necessities.
In fall 2008, hurricanes Gustav, Ike, and Paloma slammed Cuba with full force, destroying many homes, fruit trees, and crops. In the wake of the massive suffering that resulted, the Cuban government asked the Bush administration to temporarily lift the longstanding U.S. economic embargo. Our government refused.
When we arrived in Cancún, we discovered that our visas still hadn’t come through—despite giving three months to the process. We soon learned that no foreign visitors had been allowed in Cuba during November and December, and no visa applications had been processed until January. During November and December, all available rooms in guesthouses and hotels had been given over to the approximately 530,000 Cuban families whose homes had been damaged or destroyed by the hurricanes. It was our first taste of Cuban priorities.
Our generous hosts for the week included the national Fraternidad Bautista, the Kairos Christian Center and ecumenical Evangelical Seminary of Theology in Matanzas, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center in Havana. Struggling for resources like many religious institutions in our own country, these were nonetheless vibrant sites of gospel courage and compassion that operated freely.
Early on a Friday morning, we sardined ourselves into a small French Peugeot with our 200 pounds of supplies. We passed through vast stretches of sugar cane, clusters of trees, and fields of sunflowers. We saw a few signs marking the 50th anniversary of the revolution—celebrated one month earlier on Jan. 1—but never once a commercial billboard. A refreshing change from our own consumer-obsessed culture.
What we did see all along this thoroughfare were objects of a sort that I had never laid eyes on before. Like gigantic spools, with enormous spikes projecting out from all sides. Our driver explained that Cuba has a great fear of an invasion from the United States, and of U.S. planes using Cuba’s only major road as a landing strip. If such a reality were to appear imminent, Cubans across the country would be instructed to roll the massive spikes out onto the road.
At first this seemed an exercise in national paranoia. But for decades before the revolution, the U.S. had both occupied Cuba and siphoned off its resources to enrich our country. Early in 1959, within the first month after the success of the revolution, the CIA was already plotting an invasion, and the U.S. made repeated attempts in the years following to destabilize the Cuban government.
According to Perspectives on Cuba and its People, written by friend and fellow United Church of Christ pastor Ted A. Braun, 612 U.S. assassination attempts on Fidel Castro from 1959 to 1993 have been documented—involving everything from poison pills to Mafia hit men to the gift of a diving suit contaminated with a fungus known to cause a disabling skin disease and respiratory failure. When these tactics failed, our country determined to undermine the government through an economic embargo.
We arrived in dark and dusty Camagüey at about 9 o’clock Friday night, careening through its narrow, pitch-black streets during a not-uncommon power outage. Cuba is a very relational and outdoor culture, marked among the people we met by generous laughter and good will. The streets were alive with activity and music until late Friday night.
In addition to work with youth and persons with disabilities, members of our sister church are involved in prison ministry. On Saturday morning we shared a lively conversation about prisons in the U.S. and Cuba. Theirs, according to our hosts, are geared toward support and rehabilitation, with adequate food and health care, and an emphasis on education and relationship with the prisoners’ families. They were surprised to hear about what big business prisons are in the U.S., motivated by profit and punishment, and our very high recidivism rate.
After the revolution, Iglesia Getsémani’s pastor, Angelita Hernandez Gutierrez, was a young woman in training to be a teacher. As part of a massive, and highly successful, literacy campaign, the government sent her and her sister to the mountains in southeastern Cuba where they taught children in the morning and adults at night. Within a year, thousands of young teachers had reduced Cuba’s illiteracy rate from 25 percent to 3.9 percent.
There was similar success in health care, which the new Cuban government declared to be a human right and available free to all. Infant mortality dropped dramatically, and hospitals increased fivefold, with new ones opened primarily in underserved rural areas. Other successes included great strides in organic agriculture, dramatic improvements in the status of women, and a reduction in racial prejudice. Never before had I been among people who are so oblivious to skin color. Cuba is a beautiful and vibrant rainbow of human shades.
We also witnessed the downside of limited political choice and economic freedom, and the difficulty churches in particular have in acquiring the funding and facilities they need. Although many Cubans are involved in political activities on the local level, their national leadership is imposed on them, dissent is stifled, and human rights are often violated. An opening between our cultures might begin to address these issues and others.
And we have lessons to learn from a nation with such strong convictions about the common good. It was a blessed relief to travel in a place where I saw no children with the distended bellies of starvation and none begging in the streets. In Cuba everyone has a home, food, free education, and health care. That is not to say that there’s no poverty or inequity. But everyone in Cuba has what they need for survival.
Our time in Camagüey was a feast of conversation, worship, and food that passed all too quickly. Among the hugs and tears at parting, we expressed hope that our next meeting would be in Asheville. The Bush administration denied visas to members of our sister church when we tried to host them in 2008.
A decade ago, Ted Braun wrote in his book, prophetically I think: “As Cuba ceases to be an object of North American intervention and control and is allowed to become the subject of its own sovereignty and history making, it also becomes an important interlocutor for North Americans—challenging us to look anew at our own values, goals, actions, and faith. We have much to share with each other as God calls us to celebrate life and shalom together. Perhaps this is what it means most profoundly to be a neighbor.”
When our return flight landed in Cancún, the elderly farmer next to me popped out of his seat and headed toward the door, anxious to be on his way. Other people filed in behind him in the aisle. Then he turned around, worked his way back to our row, and held out his two rough hands to me. I offered mine in return, and he clasped them warmly. “Buen viaje, pastora,” he said to me, smiling. Have a good trip, pastor. “Buen viaje, señor.”
His name was Lázaro. In English, Lazarus. It’s a name that appears twice in the gospels. Luke tells the story of a rich man, who dresses in purple and feasts sumptuously, while a poor man named Lazarus lies at his gate, hungry and covered with sores. When both men die, the rich man finds himself in torment and begs his ancestor Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his burning lips with water. Essentially, Abraham tells the rich man, “You are the one who in life fixed the great chasm between you and Lazarus. He cannot cross it now to come to you.”
John tells us in his gospel that a different Lazarus was one of Jesus’ dearest friends. Jesus wept when he learned of his death. He went to the cave tomb where Lazarus had been laid and called out to his beloved friend. Lazarus staggered out of the cave, dazed by the light, still wrapped in the strips of burial cloth. “Unbind him,” commanded Jesus.
In our time, it is our own nation that has fixed the chasm between us and Cuba; that has tried to stifle the lifeblood out of that tiny nation; that has done its best to wrap us all in a shroud of secrecy and mutual enmity. With new leadership both in the U.S. and in Cuba, by the unending mercy of God, we may see an unbinding of us all. And a resurrection of relationship between our two countries.
Joyce Hollyday is co-founder and co-pastor of Circle of Mercy, an ecumenical congregation in Asheville, North Carolina, and the author most recently of Held in the Light (with Anne Morrison Welsh). For more information about Circle of Mercy’s Cuba partnership, see circleofmercy.org/news.html.